Unauthorized Questions

When we were visiting my wife’s parents over Christmas, Hannity was on. We were playing poker, but I couldn’t completely ignore Hannity, who was talking with conservative millennials.

This story about how Harvard students think America is a bigger threat to world peace than Isis came up. In the original Fox News story, they interviewed someone who responded thusly:

“This video demonstrates the absurdity behind the bash America fad.”

I sat at the table holding my cards and my tongue. I was somewhere between amused and furious. It was fascinating. University students think America is a greater threat to world peace than Isis, and Hannity’s (and Fox’s) response is to have a conversation. Lovely. Brilliant.

But the conversation wasn’t about why millennial Harvard students think America is such a big threat to world peace, or whether it actually is (though they did quote a response from one of those students). The conversation was about how academia is poisoning millennials against the awesome that is America.

There’s no debate on Fox about whether America is the greatest country in the world. You might as well debate whether the sky is blue or whether water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. They are simply facts.


I’ve noticed Christians do this too. When Rob Bell wrote Love Wins, the conversation wasn’t about the content of his book, generally. Few people who wrote about it actually engaged with his arguments. Much of the response was, “Gosh, how could someone like him fall so far away from orthodoxy?” Conservatives completely ignored his many valid points and were simply outraged that he had questioned whether God torments people eternally. It’s not on the Approved Questions list.

The gay marriage debate is the same: We already know the answer: gay marriage is a sin. The Bible says so, so why bother searching the scriptures to see whether the things someone says that disagree with what we’ve long believed are so? They’re not so; end of discussion.

If anyone says otherwise, they’re doing the work of the devil and asking, “Hath God really said?” The Christian right has been far too quick to give the deceiver the answer he wants, that “Well of course God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it,” ignoring of course, that God hath not really said what the devil asked if God had said.

I had breakfast with a friend the day after, and he described, in the context of theological debates on these hot-button issues at his (Christian) school, how one student had asked to debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. To that student, and to many conservative Christians, debating whether unbelievers go to hell for all eternity, or whether gay marriage is sinful, is a silly debate. Why bother doing the work if we already know the answer?

That is also why “Creation Science” is a bunch of nonsense, by the way: Ken Ham and his ilk are “doing the work” despite already knowing the answer. Creation Science is rather like math problems when a friend has told you what he thinks the answer is but you have to show your work: you start accepting all sorts of ridiculous nonsense that violates the laws of mathematics because you know what the answer is, dammit, and if your work is getting you somewhere else, you must’ve made a mistake somewhere. In that case, the only reason to do the work if you already know the answer is to prove that your answer is correct, no matter how much silliness is required to do so.

Asking the wrong questions is dangerous, because it holds the possibility of arriving at the wrong answers. Here’s what I mean about approved vs. off-limits questions.

Approved Questions Unauthorized Questions
How could God approve of genocide? Did God approve genocide?
How could God send people to hell for all eternity, or allow it? Does God send people to hell for all eternity?
Why is gay marriage sinful? Is gay marriage sinful?
How can we resolve the contradictions in the Bible? Are there unresolvable contradictions in the Bible?
How do we reconcile the seeming two different creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2? Why do Genesis 1 and 2 have two different creation accounts?

The difference, as you can see, is that the approved questions are, “What we agree is truth seems strange or horrible; explain to me how it works,” and the unauthorized questions are, “Is it true?” Conservative Christians are quite comfortable debating why God behaves in a certain way, but if you want to debate whether God behaves in that way, you are immediately placed outside of the camp. You can become a heretic just by asking the question if you’re assumed to have been a Christian long enough to know the approved answer, or by asking the question in a way that calls the approved answer into question.

Of course, for new Christians asking older wiser Christians, the unacceptable questions are allowed, because the new Christians are looking for information, and the older Christians can quickly provide the approved answers. I have often come across as a new Christian because I ask the off-limits questions.

But people who ask the unauthorized questions are the ones who stretch us, who make us grow, because they are usually those with the courage to wonder out loud what most of us wonder in silence, or don’t allow ourselves to wonder at all. And the answers to those questions may lead us somewhere more true and beautiful than where we are now.

Maybe those who ask the unauthorized questions are part of, as Rich Mullins has it in his song Calling Out Your Name,

How the Lord takes by its corners this old world
And shakes us forward and shakes us free.

David M Schell About David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

4 thoughts on “Unauthorized Questions

  1. I read comments recently on another article in which the commenter stated that those who didn’t believe in the literal interpretation of the bible (ie 6 day creationism) were fake Christians. Unfortunately, I would consider that the predominant view among many conservative faith communities. If not on the topic of creationism and inerrancy, then on some other heated topic such as _______ (fill in the blank because it varies by experience). When someone uses the term fake christian to describe another with a differing point of view, fear is created. What’s the fear? It could be several things. Fear of damnation from holding an unorthodox belief, and fear of being alienated from that family come quickly to mind. In a sense, one in authority tries to shame people into subjugation. So called unauthorized questions will never be asked when fear and shame rule.

  2. Going through a lot of this lately. I’m not at an evangelical church, but I am a longtime LCMS Lutheran which is also a fundamentalist church and has much more in common with the evangelical church than it does with it’s estranged “sister,” the ELCA. It’s partially personal growth along my spiritual journey, but it’s also due, in part, to a new pastor who is much more strident and constantly brings these Christian “litmus tests” to the forefront (specifically creationism, the exclusivity of salvation, and LGBT issues). It’s really forced me to examine these issues through a wider lens, and it absolutely makes people uncomfortable (myself included).

    A recent example: The pastor was preaching on finding joy in all circumstances, per Philippians. To illustrate the point, he spoke of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who wrote about finding strength in God (among other things) throughout his ordeal. I was in tears at the end because I have a hard time accepting that this man, who survived the horrors of the holocaust and that we were praising because of his ability to find joy in the midst of his trouble, is now burning in Hell. I know backward and forward the “right” answer to the question of why God must allow this. But my question to the pastor was not “why” but rather, IS THIS SO? He was caught flat-footed by that query (as was my husband). It Has been uncomfortable ever since.

    Thank you for acknowledging and normalizing these questions.

  3. Pingback: The Double Standard of Anti-Intellectualism | David M Schell

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